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How to use Balance in Photography

Balance is the basis of every composition; it determines whether the photo is pleasing and harmonious or uncomfortable and unresolved to look at. Take balance in it’s literal sense and the analogy of weighing scales comes to mind.

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If you divide this photo in half with a fulcrum in the middle, you can place objects in different parts of the scene, making the photo appear balanced or unbalanced.

When a photo is largely symmetrical, it’s easy to identify the balance but obvious balance can prove somewhat boring. I like the photo below but, if I was relying purely on it’s balance, it would have been boring.

Along with placement, we have size and visual weight to balance a photo, depending on the positioning.

For example, you have a small and a large object which would be impossible to balance at equal distances from the center of the photo. If you place the smaller object to the far edge of the frame and the larger object slightly off center, the balance becomes a lot better resolved – just as it would be with actual weights on a scale.

If you compare the visual weights of the two primary subjects in the photo below from reader Timothy Sax, you’ll see that the slightly off-center subject is counter balanced by their smaller shadow situated at the edge of the photo.

He’s also used converging and horizontal lines which help to provide a solid base for the photo. This, in turn, provides stability and balance.

It’s good to have balance in some photos but, if you want to make your images a little more interesting, unbalanced photos help to attract the viewers attention.

Unusual placement of a single object, dynamic tension and single leading lines all help to unbalance a photo as they produce the feeling of unresolved tension, demonstrated in the photo below.

Balance is, of course, much more complicated than simiply weighing out a couple of objects in a photo; it’s uncommon to actually see two objects sitting on a solid base outside of architecture, symmetry and reflections.

The weighing scale analogy is good for explaining the basics but, when it comes to the majority of photography, balance is much more complicated and there are a lot less rules.

I would consider the image below mostly unbalanced with the main visual weight of the subject to the right of the frame. The vertical lines imply a solid base and the multiple horizontals create a zig zag of natural tension.

This acts as a weight for the left side of the photo but not enough to make it feel completely balanced.

Balanced or Unbalanced?

Whether a photo is balanced or unbalanced is determined by the eyes of the viewer. It’s up to the photographer to decide how they want the viewer to perceive the photograph.

Simply put, deciding between balanced and unbalanced is the same as deciding between tension and harmony, where each degree of choice has its different uses.

We’ve already looked at balanced photos; lets have a look at unbalanced photos and their uses.

If you’re looking to add dynamic tension to your photos, you’ll immediately find that the tension itself acts as a technique for unbalancing the photo.

In the photo below, it’s hard to find the center of gravity as the image goes outwards from the photo in so many contrasting directions. The small detail in the top lefthand corner is even more distracting.

You may also want to unbalance a photo in order to direct the viewers attention to a certain part of it.

This should be done with caution.

If you choose a position for your subject that’s too unusual, the unbalanced technique you’re using becomes very obvious; much less effective.

Have a look at my photo below.

You’ll notice that the balance is leaning towards the left hand side of the photo. This leads your eyes to wonder what’s in the rest of the photo, drawing your interest towards the pier and the people on the beach.

This lack of balance makes my photo more interesting and increases the time for which my viewers observe it.

If you take the same effect and exaggerate it with the use of a shallow depth of field and less possible subjects, you’ll get results like my photo below. It’s hard to tell whether the BBQ or the tyre swing is the subject.

This unbalanced technique can change the subject from the obvious to the seemingly insignificant by sparking the curiosity of the viewer, making them want to look at something that they think they’re not ‘supposed’ to be looking at.

Lastly, you should consider the positioning of your subjects in terms of height within the frame.

In the photo below, the fireworks seem to balance out the weight of the stage. Even though the stage is clearly a lot wider, the overall size of the fireworks and their vertical positioning creates a downforce for the left side of the image.

Different composition techniques have different effects on the visual weight of objects in your scene; the better you understand them, the better your balance will be.

A Note to Finish

As photographers, we spend a great deal of our time creating awesome images by the use of alternative compositional techniques that the viewer is unlikely to pick up on.

You may find it frustrating at times that they’re not seeing all your hard work but that’s not what’s important. It’s the creation of a photo that you and your peers know is good, that is.

The more aware you are of the effects of balance on your photos, the better your photography will be; it pays to think about how you want to portray your image before picking up your camera.

The degree of balance is at the heart of every photo and can’t be ignored. Use it wisely and remember that any technique, when used to excess, is going to lose its worth.

Your Free Quick-Start Photography Cheatsheet

In order to simplify the process of learning photography, I’ve created a free download called The Quick Start Photography Cheatsheet and you can download it below.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A downloadable cheatsheet to carry with you as you shoot
  • Detailed summaries of each section of this post
  • External links to relevant articles and blog posts
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  • And much, much more…

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This downloadable cheatsheet gives you detailed summaries of every section of this post, as well as links to relevant articles, and at-a-glace images that will explain how exposure works.

Balance in Composition – Everything You Need to Know

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Josh

Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)

  • Hey Josh,
    Thanks for these tips. Composition is really important when taking photos as you rightly put it.

    I take a lot of photos when I travel and I can’t help but think about the caption and the composition when I shoot them. I especially like that waterfront photo in the post.

    I have some friends who hate to shoot when its cloudy out, but I love that as it brings out a different dimension in the photo.

    Do you find it takes you forever to get the shot right as you are busy composing/balancing it?

    • Hey Kerwin,

      First off, I recommend that you stop thinking of captions while shooting, in fact, I recommend you don’t caption your photos at all. Text in (or in this case, alongside) photos have a visual weight that encourages your viewer to think in a certain way, and while this is useful inside a photo, when you add a caption, you take away a part of the viewers imagination.

      As far as spending time composing/balancing the photo, yes and no. Yes, I spend time changing my positioning to improve the composition, but this is a natural part of photography. No, balance barely takes up any time at all, it’s something that I (and you will too) see naturally and take into consideration when the thought of the photo comes into my head. When you’re used to it, it becomes second nature.

      Hope all this helps,
      Josh

  • dushki

    Josh, what is more complicated, to do good balanced photo or to do good unbalanced photo?

    • It’s pretty easy to create a good unbalanced photo, and the same could be said about balanced photos in the right conditions; the area you need to watch out for is the ambiguously unbalanced middle. – Josh

  • Nice article. Stressing how important composition and balance is, is always useful, since they are the foundation of any visual art!